Sunday

the indignity: a disagreement with john walker.

ok so, the big lucasarse revival, yadayada. re-releasing great games from 15 years ago and pretending they're still relevant in this democratised day and age of adventure game studio. i'm working on some more mature thoughts with my brother dan, but in the meantime, here's a great heap of spewed bile about one particular niggling, shallow, aspect: the dig.

i never played the dig; it was only luck i managed to play full throttle on work experience, and i only got half way through grim fandango [couldn't find the second cd 87!]. the dig passed me by. so when it came up on steam, i thought, 'ooh', like you do, 'a 'new' lucasarts graphic adventure, that's exciting'.

it helps to understand why the style of the game is different to previous lucasarts outings to know that this was a rejected idea from spielberg (nb: literally 'play mountain')'s outer limits-style tv series; rejected for being too costly, they assure us, instead of being shit, which is what it is. it's shit. sorry, i spoilt the ending of this article for you, but not as badly as john walker spoils the ending for you in his glowing retrospective piece on it.

the article gives spoiler warnings, and anyway there's a bit of the old jewish joke cited at the start of annie hall here: the food here is lousy, and the portions are too small. but i don't care that walker spoilt the ending; i don't care about the ending of this game at all since i will never see it. this game is stupid. i disagree with every positive point walker makes, other than that the music by the ever-talented michael land is superb, and i agree that the puzzles are cretinous. he doesn't use that language - and only refers to one puzzle near the beginning as being too hard, rather than all of them being complete failures of reason and interface - but that's as much as we've got in common. importantly - i don't want to assault, annoy, or defame the character of john walker, merely deal with a few issues i have with his views on this particular subject. on the contrary, walker's piece on bookworm adventures has changed my weekend for the better by miles, and that includes leading me to re-install the dig and suffer yet more of its insults. if anyone wonders why this usually quiet blog has suddenly exploded into outrage and anger, i have two words for you - cabin fever.

briefly interactive
walker describes the opening as 'briefly interactive' but that description also fits with the rest of the game. when a puzzle game claims to have over 200 locations, it's a claim that's too good to be true - and we all know that means it isn't true. all of the artwork is pretty great (ok that's something else we agree on), but having great artwork is pointless if you can't click on anything. a location is only a location if something is located there, and in this game there is a good proportion of locations that act more as gaudy corridors, with an entrance and an exit and maybe one interactive hotspot if you're lucky. that's my first gripe.

league of gentlemen
my second, longer gripe, is the characters: are shit. walker: 'five characters are convincingly made real through realistic, unforced dialogue that doesn't rely on clumsy exposition.' i utterly disagree. after the death of brink, i deleted the game, on hearing the line 'he could be annoying, but he sure didn't deserve to die' (i reinstalled it upon his professional recomendation). while that would have worked in something jaunty like monkey island or a mixed bag like indiana jones, it's terrible in a game that's meant to be serious. here i nudge towards agreement with walker again when talking about how quickly the other two characters move on from brink's death, which is so unexpected and rapid - not to mention ironic - that it can only be dealt with by league-of-gentlemen style morbid humour.
i think walker must have very different standards for entertainment to me: he continues 'The superb opening sequences show a rare subtlety, the careful, deliberate speech of a press conference delivered over realistic hubbub of excited press,' he writes, as if the 'press conference' scene isn't in enough shit films. it doesn't seem careful to me at all; it's just what you would expect as an easy way to introduce the plot and characters. i mean, we did this in drama gcse, it's not revolutionary. the characters are a weird, random bunch of unrealistic mashups of stereotypes...

a divergent, important, point here: this is sci-fi. in sci-fi, you do stuff that's impossible at the moment, but one of the 'rules' of sci-fi is stuff has to be plausible. you can have a death-ray without going into the minutiae of explaining how it works, but the characters have to react in believable ways because they are people, and while you can change the laws of physics, the one thing that can never change are the laws of statistics. in the star wars franchise, lucas gets around this with the 'force'; what are the chances that everything revolves around coincidences and one remote desert planet? well, actually it's pretty much certain because it's 'the force'. this is why it's more of a fantasy film than sci-fi...

ok so, in the dig, the crew that gets sent into space to study the asteroid consists: one world's most famous reporter/language expert (eh?), one geologist/archaeologist (double eh?), one military commander (triple eh?), one nasa scientist/congress candidate (WHAT?), and oh, someone to fly the bloody shuttle. this is not only a completely implausible crew for a mission to save the world - which is what's actually happening at the start of the game, remember - but wouldn't you think someone at the press conference would come right out and say, 'a language expert and an archaeologist on the landing team? do you think this is an alien craft in disguise, by any chance?' if this isn't clumsy exposition and unrealistic characters, just what is?

still on gripe two (i haven't yet made my case, and characters and dialogue are essentially the same thing) after a while the dialogue began to become so bad it was funny, but only once i'd got through gritting my teeth at it; in the case of this game, not just because of the actual words, but the things they were saying, if you see the difference. upon arriving on the alien planet, brink makes the case that, since he is a trained, professional archaeologist/geologist (obviously games designers don't really appreciate the difference, i mean, you both just dig, don't you?), which is why he is on the mission, he should be the one to use the shovel and dig bones and stuff up. boston - the character you play - says no, because he's in charge. how are you meant to play a game where you disagree with the character you're playing? couldn't they have given the player a choice here? it's our game after all, and it constrains us rather than freeing us; i am asked to accept a serious of tenuous facts from characters that i don't believe in. for instance: maggie has been in this library room all this time - after crawling through an unsafe tunnel on her own - and didn't think to walk into the next room to find the museum and it's magnificent contents; that she honestly thinks the best way to understand the civilisation is to sit in one room - a room entirely free of clickable content to our hero - rather than looking at the world they have built; and she won't come and help open a stuck door with me. i can't believe in that.

funny games
final gripe - the puzzles. this is a story made into a game instead of a film. i've described above how it fails as a piece of fiction; is there any salvation in the gameplay? well, the puzzles here are either too easy (use shovel on almost anything) or stupidly hard. walker mentions the ridiculous lens puzzle thing, which is basically one of those fairground grabby games but in an alien language - not a good start to the game, but it's not the only gawper. little in this is the right level of challenge. take the highly frustrating puzzle involving bringing an alien turtle back to life from it's spat-out bones, which you first have to reconstruct the bones of. get it wrong - and even with a screen shot of the solution, it took me about 5 goes - and the animal goes through a painful and actually quite disturbing sequence where it struggles, cries in pain, and then dissolves back into bones, and not the bones that you carefully placed back into what you thought was the right order, but the initial random pile again.

get it right, and the sea monster comes back and eats it straight away again. so that boston can enter the water safely, he must correctly reconstruct the bones - in the game, we are given a fossil as a guide, but it's a rough guide and it's the next room, several clicks away - and then place a bomb canister inside the animal before bringing it back to life. typical tactic of placing bomb in animals food - except in this case, i can't help but ask why the creature is fine with a bomb in it's stomach when it was in so much pain when you got two of it's legs the wrong way round? so monster eats turtle, bomb kills monster, water is safe and crucially, entering the water leads to a cave with a mere two items, entirely unconnected to the killing of a sea monster - a key to another door in the hub and a quarter of the key needed to open the final door.

i hope this illustrates that this typical puzzle is frustrating in terms of interface and obscure as to what you are hoping to achieve, since you've no idea that these vital quest items are in the water; cynically, you do it because you know you have to do these tihngs in these games. i found this particular puzzle quite distressing on top of all that because, call me liberal, but i don't like seeing sentient creatures screaming in agony before dissolving into sludge and bones. this, by the way, is the only positive engagement i've felt with the game.

the keys are another nightmare of interface: instead of just using them on the lock, you have to laboriously copy out the code from it into the panel next to the door. the number of redundant clicks, and waiting time between them, is shocking; you know what you have to do, but the game itself is getting in your way. that's not how things should be. with the final panel, we find the sequence in which boston hotwires a broken control panel is not only ridiculous because *boston hotwires a broken control panel*, because you know, alien wiring is that simple i mean fuck i can't even fix my bass guitar with it's one pickup, but on top of that, to make the puzzle even less coherent, boston refuses to use his trusty shovel to get the panel off -
apparently, he 'can't use these two things together', his tone indicating that he's never even seen these two 'things' before, which isn't even as frustrating as all the times he looks at something and instead of saying any words, just says 'hmmmm'. lazily written, and shat upon by zombie cow studios' wonderful games, where every possible combination of items is given it's own unique, and frequently funny, description, although those are quite a deliberate reaction against the 'that doesn't work' default text.
- and the only thing that will open this panel is an ancient bony tusk he found in a pile of dirt outside. it makes no sense, and these are not isolated mistakes in the game - this is the whole game.

to summarise - i hardly felt any sort of positive connection with this game, and simply don't understand how a person might. i know you can argue back and forth about opinion and personal preference, but i find it self-evident that beneath the impressive sound and graphics the game, story, and characters here are all poor quality. any one of these would be sufficient for me to want to finish the game.

epilogue
i would have been happy to play this, dislike it, and grumble about it at home, were it not for walker's post which i just feel i have to counter; i feel there needs to be a dissenting voice somewhere against all the positive comments it recieved. were it not for the fact that i avidly read the authoritative rock paper shotgun, which walker is a part of, i wouldn't be so hurt/confused by his affection for what comes across to me as a well-polished turd.
oh, and eurogamer: if a game is just old, a retrospective is a great idea. but if an old game has just been re-released - it needs a re-review, which is different. you need to get that right.
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